Defending Affirmative Action: Tips for Teen Organizers

The gulf between schools attended by suburban whites and those attended by inner-city minorities is deep, wide and growing. What can youth organizers do about it?
BAMNSunday morning, before the final session of the three-day BAMN civil rights conference at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, a young man stepped to the empty lectern on the stage at Rackham Auditorium.

He carefully avoided touching the microphone, then pantomimed giving a dramatic speech, suppressing a grin as he imagined himself the next great leader of some national movement. A friend snapped pictures from the front row.

Then a Rackham staffer walked purposefully down the aisle to admonish him and others. The words were hushed, unheard by most, but the message was clear: Get off the stage; you don't belong there.

That moment, in many ways, illustrates what the weekend BAMN conference was all about: Young students can become powerful leaders, but established forces will try to silence them off the stage. The goal is to withstand the silencing.

"So many young people were taught to suck up, to shut up, not to think, not to think critically," said Shanta Driver, leader of the national movement known as By Any Means Necessary, dedicated to supporting affirmative action and realizing the promised equality of Brown v. Board of Education.

"They've been taught to smile and lie at the same time."

More than 200 young people, most ages 14 to 24, attended the weekend conference and appeared ready to do just that.

Driver urged them to ask themselves two questions: "What is going on in society, and what can I do to change it?"

"Every single young person who takes that step, to take up the tools to fight this fight, is absolutely precious," said Luke Massie, a national BAMN organizer.

'Stand on the truth'

Any number of realities -- lack of funds, time constraints, administrative pressure against activism and so on -- may stand between any given young person and the ability to speak out. As one California student said, "It's hard to get to Michigan, hard to get to D.C. It's easier (for many student) to stay home."

Harder still is the loneliness of activism, to feel as if you're the only voice seeking change in your school or community. That difficulty, though, makes it all the more necessary to take action.

"We have to tell the truth; we have to stand on the truth," Driver said. "If you know something is true, don't be afraid to stand on it." And stand up for it, against the voices that might disagree with or diminish your arguments.

Another California teenager called such people "invisible assassins," those who say racism is gone or racism is a problem only for minorities. "How," that student asked, "do you fight something some people think isn't even there?"

You fight by continuing to fight, to speak, to challenge.

Driver, for example, urged students to "embarrass" reluctant adults into action, to hold them to the promise of equality.

'No one on my side'

One message was clear from many students who spoke at the weekend conference: The gulf between schools attended by suburban whites and those attended by inner-city minorities is deep, wide and growing.

Students from Oakland and San Francisco, from Washington, D.C., and Maryland, from Philadelphia and Detroit echoed each other in recounting such inequities. A suburban school has 30 microscopes for a class of 16 students, while an inner-city school has just 10 microscopes total, kept on a cart and wheeled from class to class, with five students often sharing one microscope.

A school in Detroit has classrooms with 15 desks for more than 30 students. An urban Philadelphia student said the student-counselor ratio in his school stands at about 800-to-1. A student from Maryland talked about having yearlong substitute teachers who know nothing about the subjects they're supposed to be teaching. A California teacher complained about racism at work in schools, where "you have to work twice as hard to be considered half as smart" by some white teachers and administrators.

Students spoke of city school boards being commandeered by state governments, where appointed boards no longer were responsive to students, teachers or voters. They spoke with distaste about President Bush's so-called "No Child Left Behind" act, which, for many of them, appears to be more about leaving no white children behind.

Listening to the litany, Driver sighed and said, "It really makes you feel like we've come full circle back to Jim Crow segregation."

In school after school, city after city, young people often find themselves trying to make these arguments against disbelieving and dismissive administrators and politicians. Some students who lobbied for and got newer textbooks in one inner-city school, for example, then were punished by their principal for raising a ruckus.

One student put it in heartbreaking clarity: "I have no one on my side."

Becoming 'determined fighters'

Faced with such odds and attitudes, it's easy for high school and middle school students to feel cynical and unhopeful. But the BAMN gathering served as a strong reminder to these students: You are not alone, even when it feels otherwise. Other students at other schools are fighting some of the same battles.

Driver emphasized that energy and action are the cure for oppression. Don't wait for a leader to help you; you are that leader, she urged. You are the agent of change.

Driver and Massie advised students to find one or two other supportive voices in the school or community. It doesn't take many to make a difference, they said. And don't be depressed by low turnouts for planning meetings; it's the same at every school, and it's how change happens -- a few brave souls moving the conversation forward, followed by others who join as momentum grows.

Students must be what one teacher called "determined fighters," prepared to wield their clout through walkouts, protests and other means.

Some of the keys to taking such action include: being informed and educated on the issues; finding the courage to speak up, even if you're the only voice at first; and finding ways to organize students to stand together against injustice.

"We've seen what just a little bit of organization and a little bit of leadership can accomplish," Massie said. "And we've been impressed."
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